Leave it to Maureen Madill to put into perspective how big a deal hosting the 148th Open Championship is to the membership at Royal Portrush and all of her native land.
Madill, a former touring pro turned broadcaster, has been a Royal Portrush member for 50 years and sent an email to her BBC producer a full year ahead of time to give a heads up that she wouldn’t be available for work this week.
“I have a bit of socialising to do,” she told me. “Everyone is going, ‘How can you not be working at Portrush?’ Very, very easily. Why would I wait for this glorious moment and then have responsibilities all over the place? I’ve waited all my life for this week.”
She is not alone. Tickets sold out for the first time in Open history. Sam Baker, an American who owns the golf tour operator Haversham & Baker, told me he had to pull some strings to get tickets because by the time he went on the website, they were gone.
Baker also tells a fascinating story about the first time his company sent a group of golfers to Northern Ireland to play Royal County Down in 1992.
“Things didn’t go so well,” Baker recalled. “Their bus was stopped just over the border and boarded by a British Army patrol in full battle gear brandishing machine pistols.”
Thus, when a group approached Baker about playing Royal Portrush in 1993, Baker called Wilma Erskine, the club’s secretary, to ask about the safety issue. Her reply? So far as she knew, no American in a golf shirt and sansabelt trousers had ever been shot in Northern Ireland.
Baker chuckles every time he tells the story. “We’ve been doing business together ever since,” Baker said.
It was fitting to have Darren Clarke, who made a home in Portrush after marrying Heather, a local girl, hit the opening tee shot at 6:35 am.
American Charley Hoffman, who played alongside Clarke in the group, understood the significance and took a photo of the line of people trying to get into the grandstand at an ungodly hour.
“I teed off one year at the Masters behind (honorary starters) Jack, Gary, and Arnold, and that was a cool tee shot to hit after. But this one I think topped it,” he said. “Just the amount of respect that everybody has for Darren here, obviously him growing up here, and I was just happy to be a part of it.”
So, too, was, James Sugrue, the British Amateur champ and third member of Game No. 1. He came through Clarke’s junior golf foundation and Clarke found himself egging on the young upstart. Both young and old got to see their names atop the leaderboard in the early going, which led to a memorable exchange on the seventh tee.
“I don’t know if this is good or bad,” Clarke said to Sugrue. “You come through my Darren Clarke Foundation and on the seventh tee I’m leading and you’re second. There’s something not quite right about that. We had a right good laugh and chuckle about that.”
Graeme McDowell, who grew up playing at neighboring Rathmore Golf Club, the workingman’s club, drew a rousing ovation at the first tee that brought a tear to his eye.
“Kind of embarrassed to say it,” said McDowell after his 2-over 73. “I guess I do know why I had one, but at the same time I’m trying to go out there and play golf. And I’m welling up, it’s just been a great journey. It’s been an amazing journey to get here.”
Indeed, it has. It was a typical Royal Portrush day – bathed in sunshine when McDowell teed off, a few squalls of sideways rain passing through, at times warm enough for an ice cream cone, and then temperatures dropping and the wind freshening. It was a day worth waiting for 68 years.
For the Irish contingent, there was so much emotion, so much anticipation and so much pressure to succeed.
It got the best of Rory McIlroy, who had the weight of an entire country on his shoulders. No doubt that first tee jitters got the best of him as a dream became a nightmare start. Out of bounds left, an opening 8 and a round of 79.
Speaking for all of Ireland, Marty Carr, the son of Joe, Ireland’s greatest amateur and World Golf Hall of Famers, said, “This is the cruelest thing imaginable. I feel this in my heart.”
Instead, it was Shane Lowry, the pride of Offaly, flying a little under the radar among the Irish boys, he said, who rode the momentum of an adoring crowd en route to a 4-under 67 on opening day.
“The crowds are unbelievable and cheered on every tee box, and every green is a special feeling,” Lowry said.
“I tried to enjoy that as much as I can while I was doing my work and then getting down to business.”